The shadow pandemic

Assessing the reasons for increased risk of domestic violence

The Covid-19 globally deepened the gender divide, as violence against women rose in epic proportions. The United Kingdom documented a 7% rise in intimate partner violence based on indicators from the health line, and in France, it rose to 30%. Not a single country was immune from the shadow pandemic, as evident from studies from the UN Women. Further, as schools switched to online mode, girls’ education was hampered as they were married off at a younger age, making them further vulnerable to abuse.

In Bangladesh, child marriages escalated by at least 30% as 40 million students were affected from primary to higher education leading to a rise in dropout rates. The number of dropouts in secondary school is estimated to be around 45%. Already, Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriages globally, the highest in South Asia, where more than 50% of marriages are below the legal age of 18. This situation further enhanced the vulnerability of women and girls, making them susceptible to further episodes of violence and aggression.  

Further, Bangladesh’s biggest exporter, the RMG sector -- which employs 80% of the female labour force -- witnessed a severe blow as demand for exports dropped in destination countries: The EU and the US. As exports slashed, many factories were forced to shut down, and some thinned down their operations resulting in a large loss; consequently, many women were the first ones to be laid-off, slipping them into economic vulnerability.

The government and development partners have mostly focused their development activities on reintegrating men into the workforce, and very few programs were targeted at women. As the market began to slowly recover in the export-destination countries, women found it difficult to re-enter the labour force, as factories were reluctant to hire them. Already women’s participation in the RMG workforce was shrinking due to automation, as they are often the less skilled and lack access to training opportunities, according to a Mapped in Bangladesh study.

The pandemic further aggravated the situation, as confirmed by the BIGD National Survey. The survey confirms that the unemployment rates for women are three times higher than those of men. Further, even when women gained re-entry into the job market, their working hours were reduced by 15 % on average, compared to 1.5%; and women’s loss of income amounted to 21% -- two times higher than young men.

Therefore, the IMF has termed the current crisis a “she-cession” since the crisis had a severe impact on women who encountered harsh economic penalties. For instance, the tourism sector -- where a large portion of female entrepreneurs ran their businesses -- took a deep dive, in areas like handicraft, factory jobs, tailoring, and light engineering. As women lost their jobs or shut down their businesses, they became dependent on their husbands, which increased their vulnerability. Women were the first ones to be laid off from other sectors, such as media houses and the development field, as operations shrank due to funding cuts. This was the case since men were considered the primary breadwinners. Hence, employers felt that firing women was not a wrong decision, because their traditional domains are considered to be at home. Awareness of gender-sensitive matters is relatively minimal in most workplaces leading to such outcomes.

Hence, as women’s economic vulnerability increased, so did their susceptibility to domestic violence. While most economists associate male unemployment with domestic violence, a study by the Institute of Labour Economics at the University of Boon titled “Unemployment and Domestic Violence: Theory and Evidence” identifies that while male job loss increases the propensity of violence by 30%, female job loss increases the likelihood of female victimhood by twice as much -- 60%.

It further states that in families where women economically contribute, aggressive men are less likely to engage in abuse, leaving them financially worse off. They would avoid divorce at all costs since the financial burden would be too significant for them. Hence, development programs should target the economic empowerment of women to combat gender-based violence. 

Unemployment increases stress, enhancing the tendency of engagement in violent conduct. While emphasis has been placed on reintegrating men into the workforce, the focus on women is less emphasized as they are not considered the breadwinners of the family. Women’s incomes are usually considered as extra earning, not regarded as essential; hence, the necessity of keeping them active in employment is not prioritized in policy approaches.

However, research has shown that women’s financial empowerment contributes more to the family’s well-being while reducing their victimhood chances. Moreover, financially vulnerable women are less likely to report abuse, as they are stuck in a situation when they can neither escape from their situation nor report abuse.

Thus, considering these recent findings, our policy approaches should focus on empowering women financially and integrating them in the labour market sectors where they are more likely to excel. At the same time, employers should be trained to make workplaces friendly for women and provide incentives to recruit more women to the team.

Namia Akhtar is a development professional.